“How do we enhance quality of life for Greater Cambridge residents, while nurturing the economy?” Asks Alex Plant of Anglian Water & Cambridge Ahead

You can read Mr Plant’s comments in his opinion piece for The Cambridge Independent here.

I first met Mr Plant shortly before my transfer down to London in the mid-2000s during my civil service days. He had just been appointed the Director of Planning & Transport at the old Government Office for the East of England, and I had just passed the Internal Fast Stream Assessment Centre and Whitehall wanted me down within the fortnight.

Since then we’ve sort of bumped into each other every so often as he made the move out of the civil service into local government, and then the private sector, now with Anglian Water.

“Yeah – what about Anglian Water polluting our chalk streams with sewage?”

I’m leaving that with Parliament. For now. The Environment Bill is currently going through its final stages, with ministers having been forced to back down following huge public revulsion at the scenes in our streams and rivers. It remains to be seen if ministers can placate parliamentarians (and the public) with a proposed stronger amendment to the legislation to force the water companies to take much stronger action.

This blogpost picks up on the issues Mr Plant raises. The reason why I think it’s worth reading is because he’s one of the very high calibre individuals working in the field of the future of Cambridge. For those of you that want to raise issues about Anglian Water (and I have a few myself – not least on the future of our water supply) the buck stops at the Chief Executive. (See Anglian Water’s Board and senior management structure here). For what it’s worth, I think the chief executives of all of the water companies should have higher public profiles and the political/current affairs media should have been calling them out over the sewage scandal. I also think there’s merit in doing what charities such as Friends of the Earth started doing in the 1990s, which was having their affluent and time-free activists buying shares in the utility companies and turning up to company AGMs with lots of awkward questions about, and motions on the environment. With the latter, executives were forced to address the issues in detail and explain to the big influential investors why they disagreed with the environmentalists. A slightly harder sell for executives today.

“So this post won’t give Anglian a kicking then?”

No. That would be too easy. This post looks at some more deeply-rooted problems that Mr Plant touches on, but I think could expand on at a later date. There is also the big elephant in the room that he does not address at all, but is the ideal person to pass detailed comment on:

“Which is?”

Does Greater Cambridge have the right governance structure to give the people who make up our city (including the commuters from the villages outside, and the regular visitors, as well as the students and long term residents) the best chance of addressing the big future challenges, including the biggest of all, the climate emergency?”

Again I remind people of the 1966-69 Royal Commission on Local Government in England which I digitised Vol 1 of here. As well as examining in detail all of the possible functions of, methods of resourcing, and legal powers for local councils, it also looked at structures & boundaries and came up with this proposal for Greater Cambridge separate to a Greater Peterborough.

Above – proposals from the Royal Commission, for a new Greater Cambridge Unitary Council which would have gotten rid of many of the historic boundaries, split the current enlarged Cambridgeshire county into two, and added the surrounding towns currently outside of the county (such as Newmarket, Haverhill, Saffron Walden, and Royston) into the new local authority area.

Mr Plant has worked for central and local government, and for former public utilities since privatised. As someone familiar with the many tiers of the state at a very senior level – and with The Treasury, he is uniquely positioned to give a very informed view of where the boundaries of a new unitary local council could be (Assuming he takes the view that a unitary council is the best solution in this day and age), as well as the funding, powers, and responsibilities such a council should have.

“Why so many additional roles?”

Both are roles Mr Plant holds outside of his day job. All other things being equal, I can hear people already asking where he finds the extra time for those commitments. “Shouldn’t he be spending every working hour dealing with the sewage crisis?” It’s a similar view many of us have about Members of Parliament who take on paid extra curricular activities – one of the most high profile and most highly remunerated until he became Leader of the House of Commons was Jacob Rees Mogg. Scroll down here for the published record of his remuneration and you can see why some people got angry when they found out.

Being someone strongly in favour of Universal Basic Income as a concept, I think it would be progressive if people did not have to work full time, and were able to job-share more than they are at present. That’s assuming there are no conflicts of interests in such arrangements. For me, being both a Minister of the Crown and a Member of Parliament is an inherent conflict of interest – one I would like to see overhauled to separate the powers & functions of legislature from the executive, a very basic constitutional principle.

I also believe the Pandemic and Lockdown taught us that there are many remunerated occupations (i.e. paid jobs) that don’t need doing or do not add value to our day-to-day existence, while there are many underpaid and unpaid jobs that really do need doing – and being paid a decent salary to have done. Furthermore, some jobs are invented by progression in new technology, and others become obsolete and/or cease to exist.

Above – employment at the old Cambridge Gas Works (now Newmarket Road Tesco) was made possible by developments in the industrial revolution. It was made obsolete by the discovery of North Sea Oil & Gas, and engineering technology that enabled a chemically higher quality gas to be obtained.

One thing I hope the climate crisis forces the world to do is to overhaul the concept of employment. Personally I don’t think it will – not in my lifetime anyway. But at least Kate Raworth is forcing us to ask the right questions of those with power and influence with her work on Doughnut Economics.

“Who is Cambridge Ahead accountable to? Who is the Centre for Cities accountable to?”

Now those are interesting questions. Let’s deal with the latter first. The Centre for Cities is a think tank – a not-for-profit public policy institution that researches and proposes solutions for governments and politicians to adopt and implement. Their management is accountable to a Board of Trustees (See here), and they are regulated by, and have to publish and submit annual reports to the Charity Commission. You can see the Centre For Cities’ entry in the Commission’s register here.

Cambridge Ahead is an alliance of institutions that seek to influence public policy insofar as it affects the Cambridge sub-region (for want of another term). Going by their website it has 49 members which it says represents 40,000 working employees.

In Cambridge Ahead’s case, there’s a reasonable question to ask its constituent members on how those employees are able to influence the corporate positions of those institutions vis-a-vis influencing the corporate position of Cambridge Ahead on the future of our city. Otherwise, why mention the total number of employees? As a principle, accountability to members and subscribers is an essential function – whether it be a professional trade association (say the Cambridge Network), local trade union branches (many of whom are members of the longstanding Cambridge & District Trades Council), to campaign groups (Cambridge Cycling Campaign – which has over 1,600 members at the last count), to community and civic groups (such as the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations).

“What is corporate lobbying that we hear about?”

This is where Mr Plant has done everyone a favour – by explaining in straight-forward terms what his group does.

“So. part of what we try to do through Cambridge Ahead’s Policy Group, is to leverage our influence over national government decision making, by bringing together key people from business, academia and local government to provide evidence, increase understanding of the key issues, and ensure that the decisions that are made are the best ones.

Alex Plant, Cambridge Independent, 01 Nov 2021

Having been a target for lobbyists in my civil service days, I got to see first hand how it works. Which is why I think both high standards in public life – as overseen by the Committee on Public Standards – and which published its damning report yesterday on the present Government’s failure to uphold said standards, are ever so important.

From the above quotation, two further questions spring to my mind:

  1. Who is missing from that group who also makes up a sizeable component of our city?
  2. “…[ensuring] that the decisions that are made are the best ones” – best ones for whom?
The reason why both matter is because the future of Cambridge is a highly-contested one. It always has been, whether you want to go back to the times of:

…or any other period you choose to pick. There was always someone with an opinion!

So all of this comes back to the question I put at the start that the debate on our city’s future – and our county’s future has repeatedly ignored:

“How should Cambridge be governed?”

(Note the similar question – “How should Cambridgeshire be governed?” will mean different things to different people depending on a whole host of things – not least which part of the county you are in geographically – and also topographically given the large areas that are below sea level).

Because at the moment too many existing routes lead to a brick wall in Whitehall – all too often a funding-related, but not always. How can Mayor Dr Nik Johnson hope to deal with the skills crisis if he needs to keep going to ministers for permission to do things – such as establishing new adult education colleges – Something the Minister confirmed in response to a question that Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner put to her on my behalf.

At the moment, big issues include:

  1. The inability of local councils to force water companies to take substantial measures to invest in environmental protection, sourcing new supplies, and increasing efficient water use
  2. The inability of local councils to properly safeguard sites, plots of land, and existing buildings (esp historical ones) for community – whether large areas for new parks or much-loved buildings that councils have no ability to purchase from hostile owners leaving them unused
  3. The inability of local government to co-ordinate the economic and other needs areas that are artificially separated by administrative boundaries – such as the Cambridge-Haverhill corridor.

Until we overhaul our structures and systems of governance, too many of the big decisions risk being flawed before they are taken.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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